Cool Characters, Outsider Communities and Wild Career Successes: Austin Butler Chats 'The Bikeriders' 

He's slipped into Elvis' blue-suede shoes. He battled Timothée Chalamet in 'Dune: Part Two'. And when the part of Benny in this motorcycle drama came his way, Butler “just felt that I had to play him”.
Sarah Ward
Published on July 02, 2024

Anyone with a passion or an idol has a before and after: the time prior to the thing or person that they adore coming into their lives, and the time since. Whether or not you're just a hunk of burning love for Austin Butler, the same type of thinking applies to the actor and his stunning performance in Elvis. He's been on-screen since he was a teenager, starting in a spate of Nickelodeon series such as Hannah Montana, iCarly and Zoey 101 — but becoming the king of rock 'n' roll for Baz Luhrmann in a portrayal that earned him an Oscar nomination, and won him both a BAFTA and a Golden Globe, instantly made him a household name.

Ask Butler about his past few years since Elvis, as well as the impressive resume he's been amassing before and since, and he marvels at it. Alongside Luhrmann, he's now worked with Jeff Nichols on his newest movie The Bikeriders, Jim Jarmusch on 2019's The Dead Don't Die, Quentin Tarantino on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the same year and Denis Villeneuve on 2024's Dune: Part Two. He's also led a Steven Spielberg-produced TV show in Masters of the Air and notched up those aforementioned accolades. "When you say it all back to back, that sounds wild," he tells Concrete Playground.

Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

Butler isn't wrong. As the world saw with Elvis, then heard when his Presley accent seemed to drawl from his lips long after the biopic stopped shooting, he also isn't half-hearted for a second about his craft or his characters. Back in 2022, Luhrmann advised Concrete Playground that Butler playing Presley was "like a life-or-death commitment for him". Ask the man himself about that now, too, and he notes that the same dedication applies to each part that he steps into. "Every role is different and they all have their own requirements, but — I know that it might sound ridiculous — it feels like it's life or death. Like, you feel like your life depends on it in a way," he shares.

With The Bikeriders, which Butler returned Down Under for to attend the film's Australian premiere at the 2024 Sydney Film Festival in June — after shooting Elvis on the Gold Coast, of course — viewers can witness him infuse that devotion and attentiveness into another of his great performances. He plays Benny, the lone-wolf Vandals Motorcycle Club member that everyone wants to be, the movie's narrator Kathy (Jodie Comer, Killing Eve) marries within five weeks of meeting and even club president Johnny (Tom Hardy, Venom: Let There Be Carnage) reveres. For the picture's characters, there's a before and after with encountering Benny, in fact, as there similarly is for the midwestern organisation that this band of outsiders find a sense of belonging in.

Benny has his own versions of the before-and-after phenomenon. There's his life pre- Vandals, then after the headstrong thrill-seeker joins its ranks. There's also his existence prior to meeting Kathy, then all that follows. Spanning a ten-year period, the 60s- and 70s-set film charts how Benny's connection to the club and to his wife collide — and how Kathy and Johnny alike grapple with his influence. Drawn from reality even though its central biker gang is fictionalised, with Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special and Loving's Nichols adapting the film from the non-fiction book of the same name by photojournalist Danny Lyon, The Bikeriders equally chronicles the search for identity that accompanies enlisting in a group like the Vandals, putting someone at the centre of your orbit as Kathy and Johnny do with Benny, and attempting to be yourself no matter what, aka Benny's constant tussle.

Caroline McCredie

Butler has excellent company in The Bikeriders, not only in Comer and Hardy, but also Mike Faist (Challengers), Michael Shannon (The Flash), Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon), Boyd Holbrook (Justified: City Primeval), Emory Cohen (Blue Bayou), Karl Glusman (Civil War), and Australians Toby Wallace (The Royal Hotel) and Damon Herriman (The Artful Dodger). He's particularly exceptionally cast, however, as a mesmerising force endeavouring to remain authentic regardless of what the world throws Benny's way (and, given the era, the country, and the social, cultural, economic and political shifts that come with both, that's plenty).

The Bikeriders might seem worlds away from Elvis and Dune: Part Two, Butler's two most-recent cinema roles — it's certainly intimate where they're each built upon spectacle — but they too wrestle with trying to discover who you truly are and where you fit in. Why he was drawn to the part, and to working with Nichols; how Butler sees Benny's journey throughout the film; outsider communities, including the parallels with being in the film industry; returning to that search for identity again and again; the contrast between making movies that favour intimacy and those worshipping spectacle: Butler also talked us through all of the above, plus his acting ambitions from this point onwards.


Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

On What Attracted Butler to The Bikeriders

"First of all, it was Jeff Nichols. Knowing that he had written it and was going to be directing it really piqued my interest. And then reading the script, for one, it just felt that I was able to see the movie in my head as I read it.

It felt like such a cool movie that had so much heart. It just seemed like a really good film. And the character was one of the coolest characters I've ever read — I just felt that I had to play him."


Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

On How Butler Sees Benny's Journey Throughout the Film

"He's an interesting one. Jeff describes him as an empty glass that everybody's trying to fill. And they're filling, they're trying to fill him with their expectations and responsibilities and rules, but he can't be filled with it.

That's the interesting thing with both the club, which is this group of outsiders who don't like rules who come together and then funnily enough, they start making rules themselves within the club — and then, same thing with the relationship with Kathy, where he loves her and loves that feeling of connection and magnetism towards her, as long as there's no rules. And then once she starts trying to impose these rules, that's when he wants to cut bait and leave.

Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features, LLC. All RIghts Reserved.

But what comes along with that is then an incredible amount of loneliness, I think. And so you can compartmentalise — and so I guess, by the end of the film you're seeing him at a point now where he's experienced loss and he's experienced loneliness, and he's trying to do things differently, but there is that lone wolf inside of him.

I also like leaving that moment up to interpretation — like, I'm so curious to have conversations with people after they see the film now and know what they think that last moment of the film is."


Courtesy of Focus Features. © 2023 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

On Digging Into the Type of Community That Forms When Outsiders Come Together

"I thought about it in the context of motorcycle lovers. That was the group that I was hanging around with at that time as we were making a movie, where all the people that I was with, we just ride motorcycles 12 hours a day and talk about motorcycles and work on motorcycles — and it's a very particular type of person that is in that world.

But as you say that, it just makes me think of even the traveling circus that is making movies. They're kind of that same sort of outsider culture, where you're travelling around the world, and you pick up the circus tent and you move it somewhere else. You work for a while there and you have your family, and then the family disbands and you go and you kind of do it again somewhere else.

So I suppose that that's the kind of the world that I've been a part of for a long time."


Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

On Repeatedly Stepping Into Films with a Search for Identity at Their Heart

"I don't know how much Benny is searching for an identity necessarily. I think that's why that Tom's character Johnny, when he talks about out of all the guys in the club that Benny is the one that they want to be because he doesn't need anything from anyone. He doesn't really want any rules.

But I suppose, I guess from the other side, you could see he decided to join this club. He decided to become a part of something. So perhaps that is part of the identity, and maybe motorcycles being a part of the identity.

I guess we could just look at the human condition with that, and how we're all sort of — it's what helps us get through the world, you know, is our identity and what we identify with. And now we get into a philosophical conversation about ego and what connects us to feeling and identity at all."


Courtesy of Focus Features. © 2023 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

On Moving From the Sense of Spectacle in Elvis and Dune: Part Two to the Intimacy of The Bikeriders

"It's really one of the things that drew me to it. I wanted to do something very different — and how raw it was, and the fact that we were shooting on film and everything is practical. We were actually riding motorcycles with no helmets. It was just very visceral.

So, yeah, it does change things because I think with some of the spectacle performances, it can be — I don't know, I'm trying to figure out as I'm saying it, but sometimes it's about the aesthetic of it and the frame of it. And sometimes that can feel external at times, where it's where you are in the frame and the angle of your face and that sort of thing.

This felt — I felt — less conscious of any of that type of thing, and it was more about the relationships, and more just about the humanity and that connection."


Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

On How Having Such a Huge Past Few Years Has Shaped Butler's Ambitions as an Actor From This Point Onwards

"I think right now I feel very fortunate for the opportunities that I've had, and it's really been my dream for my entire life to get to work with directors of this calibre and actors that I've always admired.

So I really think my dream now is just to continue working with great directors and actors, and to keep growing — to keep challenging myself and surprising myself, and try not to do the same thing twice.

I know that I have a lot to learn, and I'm just continuing to try to stay curious and grateful."


The Bikeriders opens in cinemas Down Under on Thursday, July 4, 2024. Read our review.

Top image: Courtesy of Focus Features. © 2023 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

Published on July 02, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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